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What Is Stevia and Is It Right for You?

Filed Under: Diet & Weight Loss,Food Politics,Nutrition at 10:19 am | By: Michele Shapiro

Stevia is a no-calorie, natural sweetener, but how does it stack up to other sugar substitutes? Here’s the backstory on stevia and a few things to take into consideration before making the switch from sugar.

What Is Stevia?

The first thing you need to know about stevia (or “rebiana,” as it is sometimes called) is that it’s not a brand name like Equal, Sweet’N Low or other artificial sweeteners. “It’s a general term for all sweeteners derived from the Stevia Rebaudiana bush, an herbal plant that’s prevalent in Asia and South America,” explains Carol Aguirre, a licensed, registered dietitian/nutritionist at Nutrition Connections in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She adds that sweeteners labeled stevia are extracts called steviol glycosides. “The two primary steviol glycosides are rebaudioside A and stevioside,” says Aguirre.

Stevia is sold in the U.S. under several brand names, including Truvia, PureVia, SweetLeaf, and Stevia in the Raw. Classified as a non-nutritive sweetener, stevia provides consumers with a sweet taste that has fewer calories than sugar. You’ll find it in a range of sodas, sports drinks and dairy products as well as in tabletop packets, liquid drops, dissolvable tablets, and baking blends. 

Stevia vs. Sugar

In addition to the fact that stevia comes from the leaves of a plant rather than a lab, the natural sweetener’s biggest draw is that it’s low in calories. One packet of stevia, which is equivalent to 2 teaspoons of sugar, provides 5 calories and 1 gram carbohydrates, while Stevia extract, a liquid form of the sweetener, contains no calories. How does sugar compare? Well, 2 teaspoons has 30 calories and 8 grams carbohydrates. While this may not sound like a lot, “people often use more than 2 teaspoons of sugar,” Aguirre says, “so the calories can add up quickly.” As she notes, many experts believe that sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity and many chronic diseases, such as diabetes, in the U.S.

Another plus: Stevia is not completely absorbed by the body. Therefore, those looking to lose weight and control blood sugar might choose stevia over sugar, observes Neal Malik, a registered dietitian nutritionist and chair of the Department of Nutrition and Basic Sciences at Bastyr University in California.

When it comes to taste, the raw leaves of the Stevia plant are approximately 40 times sweeter than sugar, and the powdered sweetener derived from them is up to 200 to 300 times more sweet. However, because the chemical compounds found in the Stevia plant interact with both the sweet and bitter receptors on your tongue, some complain about its signature bitter aftertaste. “That bitter taste is why, at least so far, beverages sweetened with stevia extracts mix in other sweeteners as well, such as erythritol, aspartame, or regular sugar,” says Aguirre, who cites a recent study, which analyzed the different components of stevia to find out why certain compounds were perceived as more bitter (1).

The findings will allow for future development of stevia-derived sweeteners to focus on the plant’s sweetest, least bitter compounds. But, she adds, while some researchers spend time identifying the sweetest chemical compounds in stevia, “others are working to breed the sweetest possible version of the stevia plant itself.”

In terms of versatility, stevia has proven as versatile as sugar. “The steviol glycosides found in the stevia plant are relatively stable compounds, which means they can be used in a variety of ways,” says Malik. “Stevia can sweeten drinks, like iced tea and coffee.” In addition, some food manufacturers have begun adding it to their dairy products.

Since stevia’s a concentrated source of sweetness, it can also be substituted for sugar in baked goods—with a few caveats. First and foremost, “it won’t brown the way sugar does,” both Aguirre and Malik point out. What’s more, sugar plays a role in the physical structure of baked goods, and stevia does not provide the same bulk. Thankfully, there’s an easy solve: For each cup of sugar substituted, use of 1/3 cup of a bulking agent, such as egg whites, apple sauce, fruit puree or yogurt, Aguirre suggests. “Sugar helps make cakes lighter, so the finished cake will be denser and potentially doughy,” she explains. “You can counter this by adding a bit more baking powder than is called for in the recipe.”

Stevia Benefits

The American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association have given a cautious OK to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, diabetes and all risk factors for heart disease. “They are not magic pills,” Aguirre cautions, “but smart use of non-nutritive sweeteners could potentially help reduce added sugars in our diet, as a result lowering the number of calories you eat.” Reducing calories, in turn, may help achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, and lower the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, while also lowering cholesterol.

When it comes to studies that specifically investigate stevia’s role in lowering disease risk, researchers from the United Kingdom and Belgium have found that stevia activates a protein called TRPM5, associated with taste perception. The protein also plays a role in the release of the hormone insulin after eating. These findings could lead to new treatments for Type 2 diabetes (2). However, more evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of stevia for both lowering diabetes risk.

There has also been research into stevia’s anti-cancer abilities. One study published in 2012 connected stevia consumption to breast cancer reduction (3).

Another showed that when stevia was added to natural colon cancer-fighting mixtures, such as blackberry leaf, antioxidant levels increased significantly. But again, more research is needed to confirm these findings (4).

Side Effects of Stevia

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has identified Stevia and its related compounds as “generally recognized as safe.” Currently, a safe dose is considered 4 milligrams/kilogram body weight per day (5).

As Malik explains, “this means that, at this time, there’s not enough scientific evidence to show that stevia consumption may be harmful to health in the short- or long-term.” However, he points out that animal studies have revealed that large doses of stevia may lead to genetic mutations (6). That said, the verdict’s still out on how large amounts of stevia impact humans, since evidence is lacking .

Although stevia is considered safe for people with diabetes, says Aguirre, “brands that contain dextrose or maltodextrin should be treated with caution. Dextrose is glucose, and maltodextrin is a starch. These ingredients add small amounts of carbs and calories. Sugar alcohols may also slightly tip the carb count.” Bottom line: If you use stevia products now and then, it may not be enough to impact your blood sugar. But if you use them throughout the day, the carbs add up.

Your stomach might also be affected. A 2015 study reported a possible link between non-nutritive sweeteners, including stevia, and a disruption in beneficial intestinal flora (7). The same study also suggested non-nutritive sweeteners may induce glucose intolerance. Additionally, in some people, stevia products made with sugar alcohols may cause digestive issues like bloating and diarrhea.

If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, stay on the safe side and avoid use, since there is not enough reliable information about the safety of taking stevia.

Lastly, certain medications may interact negatively with stevia. Experts warn those who take lithium to exercise caution because stevia might have an effect like a water pill or “diuretic.”  Taking stevia might decrease how well your body gets rid of lithium. In theory, this could result in serious side effects. Talk with your doctor if you are taking lithium. Your dose might need to be changed if you partake in stevia regularly.

In addition, be mindful if you are on diabetes medications. Some research shows that stevia might decrease blood sugar in people with Type 2 diabetes. In theory, stevia might cause an interaction with diabetes meds that results in blood sugar levels going dangerously low. That said, not all research has found that stevia lowers blood sugar.

Therefore, it is not clear if this potential interaction is cause for concern. Until more is known, monitor your blood sugar closely if you take stevia and tell your doctor if you believe the dose of your diabetes medication needs to be changed. Similarly, if you’re on medication to lower blood pressure, using a natural sweetener might cause your blood pressure to go too low.  Again, report any concerns to your health care provider.

How to Use Stevia

There’s a huge variety of stevia on the market, and, in many cases, it comes in the form of fillers and additives. As a consumer, you must always read the ingredient list. Chances are, you’ll see more than just stevia on that list, especially if it’s an inexpensive brand. Most stevia products contain one or more additives to bulk up the product and create a more free-flowing powder. Some examples of fillers include:

Maltodextrin: A filler created from rice, potatoes, or corn that provides a sweet taste and creates an free-flowing product.

Dextrose: A filler made from corn sugar, fruits or honey. It is closer to sugar than other fillers on the market, and because it’s very low in carbohydrates and calories, Dextrose is allowed to be labeled as calorie-free.

Inulin: One of the safest additives is this vegetable, prebiotic fiber.

Erythritol: A sugar alcohol made from corn that’s generally tolerated well.

Xylitol: A sugar alcohol made from birch trees, this additive is one of the safest out there.

Glycerin: The safest of all additives, it is a liquid often found in alcohol-free liquid stevia products. It is derived from fruits and vegetables and does not raise the glycemic index.

If you want to purchase the purest stevia product possible, scour the label for the words “100 percent pure stevia extract” (not stevia powder, which indicates it is a blend and not pure extract). Liquid stevia products may also be in a base of alcohol (much like vanilla extract). However, many alcohol-free varieties are available, so read the ingredients panel closely.

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